The last minutes before dimmed lights signaled the start of “Owners” at the Yale Repertory Theatre felt a bit like collect calling the 1970s — and being put on hold. Vince Guaraldi-esque jazz piano kept the wait upbeat, (reminiscent of a “while your party is reached” phone melody) and the scene on stage seemed paused, and about to pick up again. The destination: an urban London neighborhood in a transitional time of day. Morning or evening has already started here. A plastic dog figurine stands frozen at the heels of a larger, hunched female statue. Another female mannequin props herself against a grocery cart. A tune began to play — one to twist and shout or shimmy to.
On the other end of the line, the characters in Caryl Churchill’s now retro play answer with passionate voices. They are people whose lives spin in and out of control. The enigmatic real estate agent Marion sits at the top of the hierarchy and magnificently continues to scale her community’s social ladder; on the other hand, her soon-to-be unemployed butcher husband, Clegg, falls prone to the economic downturn. His pride falls with him. Their neighbors, the lively Lisa and consistently calm Alec expect a baby but never expect the smooth-talking Worsley (Marion’s colleague) to offer to purchase their home.
Clegg calls Marion a “magnet” and actress Brenda Meaney GRD ‘13 successfully conducts both a cold, austere intelligence — masked by a dark sense of humor — and a fiery electricity. After the lifeless female faces of the models we first see on stage, Marion’s entrance is all the more animated; her ambition propels her. Costumer Seth Bodie provides Marion with an utterly fabulous green coat for her first entrance, and the stylish ensembles reappear throughout the performance. Yes, Miranda Priestley, Marion made fashion statements in her office before the devil wore Prada.
But Marion, too, reveals her humanity. She is more than a hungry mogul. Turns out, her impulsive pursuit of the flat in question is really a quest for the man inside of it. Marion never fell out of love with the now broken down, uncaring Alec. The choices she now makes in her own are all in the shadow of the life she could have had with him. Marion manipulates Lisa into letting her adopt Lisa’s baby. And, when Alec still refuses to commit to her, she and Worsley plot revenge. He suggests burning the house down, and Marion likes the idea. Toward the climax of the play, her sanity seems to deteriorate as Alec’s revives. She clings to Alec’s baby, her piece of him, and declares a fit of passion: “I can be as terrible as anyone!” This assertion of emotional equality almost recalls Jane Eyre — perhaps Marion’s unique tragedy lies in her combination of both Bronte’s learned heroine and the madwoman in the attic (flat?) all at once. Overload!
In contrast to such outwardly dramatic scenes, Churchill also includes moments of quiet power. Actress Alex Trow GRD ‘12, in the role of Alec’s mum, commands the stage with silence, rather than Marion’s forceful voice. Believed to be losing her mind by Alec and the rest of the family, she rests in her chair and almost melts into the apartment’s scenery. Trow’s makeup is also layered into wrinkles so subtly that she disappears into a role over 40 years her age. When she whimpers, “Edie” — a name that’s never attached to someone in the plot — Alec usually answers her because, as he says, she likes someone to answer back. One call to her family: “Edie,” though, goes unanswered when Lisa, Alec’s wife, struggles on a nearby bed with labor pains. Though clearly pained with the labor of movement herself, Alec’s mum unexpectedly raises herself up. She creaks out of her chair, and moves toward the door, into the kitchen, and back into the parlor — returning with a tea kettle, no less. The journey proves costly, though, and she crumples back into her chair a bit. Still, she has made it.
“Owners” certainly makes it, too. Carmen Martinez’s GRD ‘13 professional scenic design creates artful interludes between the silence and sound of the play’s moving, three-dimensional characters. Their world, and the problems that threaten to break it up — sexism, social injustice, racism — can still call out today.